Maurice Sendak: An appreciation

Maurice Sendak: An appreciation

'He is the yardstick against whom other artists are measured'

Maurice Sendak and friend, on a segment of the PBS series American Masters. Courtesy PBS

Special to The Jewish Standard

Maurice Sendak revolutionized children’s literature in a career that spanned almost 60 years, but he did not think of his books as stories for children. They were stories he told himself. “I chose the picture book form because I could hide myself in it and talk about whatever I like,” he said in a telephone interview several years ago. “That it works for children is wonderful, but that is not what I set out to do.”

Sendak, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83, was best known as the creator of the horned and fanged “Wild Things.” Whether his drawings were of mischievous monsters or innocent-faced children, teeming theatrical tableaux or delicate portraits detailed with crosshatching, his style is hard to mistake for anyone else’s. He imbued his characters with an old-world yet timeless quality, their round faces, squat bodies, dreamy, closed-eyed stances or bare-footed romps a balance of movement and motionlessness, of floating, morphing shapes yet energetic immediacy. Even when his theme was brooding or melancholy, his characters reflected the hopefulness of childhood.

Sendak’s gift was that he was able to “see and speak double”: to blend a child’s perspective with an adult’s sensibility and wisdom, said Tony Kushner, Sendak’s collaborator on Brundibar. “You’ve got the Grimm brothers, you’ve got Randolph Caldecott, and you’ve got Sendak,” said Sendak’s long-time editor, Michael di Capua. “If artists and writers are measured by the complexity of their work, he’s the yardstick against whom everyone else is measured in 20th-century children literature.”

Wild, scary fantasy world

Sendak was infuriated by the misperception that serious picture books are mere “trifles for the nursery.” The fantasy world he inhabited and endlessly recreated brims with the wild and scary, with raw honesty and vulnerability, and, ultimately, with a measure of peace and hope. It also overflowed with a Jewish spirit, its core pierced by the horror of the Shoah. “Like most of us Jews in America, the Holocaust has so entwined us, like ivy, in our lives, that it’s just impossible to deal with it, but I’ve finally dealt with it as best I can,” Sendak said after the publication of “Brundibar” in 2003. “Brundibar” was based on a Czech opera that was performed 55 times at Terezin, the Nazis’ show camp.

Although he was not ritually observant, Jewish themes always interested Sendak. His very early works included illustrations for publications by Jewish organizations, including “Good Shabbos, Everybody” and “Happy Hanukkah, Everybody” (United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education). Bits of his personal life crept into his art: He modeled the characters in I.B. Singer’s “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories” on photographs of relatives, including his own baby pictures.

Born in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children, Sendak’s childhood was haunted by the Shoah. While his parents escaped Europe just before World War I and managed to save enough money to bring over most of his mother’s family, his father’s family was entirely lost – a tragedy they learned of the weekend young Maurice celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah: “That makes me the last Sendak, consumed with curiosity and pain, not knowing who they were.”

The 1930s, he says, were nightmares of war and torment. “You would call that a most terrible childhood because all you heard was about the destruction of the Jews of Europe. You might as well have been living in a shtetl, except this was in Brooklyn.”

Bakers three – all Ollie-like

The Shoah became his “personal burden as an artist, to find a way to live for myself. The books were all my attempts to fumble through these feelings. All were laced with Holocaust themes, though they had nothing to do with it, except tangentially.” His “In the Night Kitchen,” for instance, depicts three bakers, Oliver Hardy look-alikes, mixing the hero, Mickey, into the batter, then putting the batter into the oven. Although Sendak did not intend it, some critics found in that scene an allusion to the Nazi crematoria.

For “Brundibar,” he struggled to find a visual expression through which he could pour out his feelings about the Shoah. He scrapped a complete set of drawings, setting the book’s publication back a year, until he finally found the right medium – crayon – recreating the color, style, and waxy look of the drawings of the real children of Terezin. He said he weighted the dark theme with vivid colors. The collision of prettiness and awfulness was a theme he tried to resolve all his creative life.

Sendak described his studio in Ridgefield, Conn., as a “chatchka shop,” cluttered with favorite possessions, pictures, and books. A photograph of Lewis Carroll’s Alice – the real one, at 18 – stood near his drawing table. “She’s like my soul mate, because of the sadness in her,” Sendak said. He treasured a simple menorah, a gift from friends, bought at a street fair in Cracow, Poland.

Sendak completed his large set designs for opera, theater, and ballet in a nearby red barn. A hooked rug on the floor depicted the Wild Thing he called Moishe – his own name. He named all the creatures: Bernard (or Berel, his middle name); Tzipi, Emil, and Bruno (all relatives). “My mother called me vilde chayah, the wild thing. Whatever the occasion, I was a vilde chayah. Most children are.” In fact, he says, the wild things were inspired by his Jewish relatives “with bad teeth and hairy noses” who would come for Sunday dinner and threaten, “You’re so cute I could eat you up!”

He grew up on Mickey Mouse (his first illustration, at age 6) and King Kong. A sickly child who nearly died of scarlet fever, he spent his childhood indoors, writing, drawing, worshiping his sister Natalie, spending time with his mother in the kitchen, making toys, and creating books from shirt cardboard with his brother Jack.

Story-telling father

His father, a dressmaker, was a gifted and prolific storyteller (“In Grandpa’s House” is based on a story his father wrote). Between 1943 and 1944, Sendak filled almost 20 sketchbooks with drawings of the neighborhood children whom he observed from his Brooklyn window, especially the theatrical Rosie, who later became the title character of “The Sign on Rosie’s Door” and the Really Rosie collaboration with Carole King.

In his senior year of high school, “indifferent to everything but drawing,” Sendak’s physics teacher promised him a passing grade and $100 in cash to illustrate a textbook she had written. “Atomics for the Millions” was Sendak’s first publication. FAO Schwartz turned down his and Jack’s proposal to produce their toy designs, but hired him instead as a window display artist. The book buyer introduced him to Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom, who took him under her wing, overseeing collaborations with Ruth Krauss (“A Hole is to Dig”), who also became a mentor; Elsie Holmelund Minarik (“Little Bear”); and Meindert deJong. These early works offered a preview of Sendak’s gift of getting beneath the surface to reveal truths that had previously been considered beyond the province of children’s books.

Awards proliferated, most notably the Caldecott Medal in 1964 (the Emmy of children’s book illustration) for “Wild Things,” and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal (the Nobel Prize of children’s literature) in 1970, at which Sendak jokingly suggested that in his case the award should be called the Hans Jewish Andersen Medal. His work, however, also suffered its share of controversy: “Wild Things” was criticized for being too frightening; “Night Kitchen,” for a nude Mickey.

“What is too often overlooked is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are part of their lives,” said Sendak at the Caldecott acceptance speech. “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.”

Music empowered his art

Sendak’s formal education ended in high school, but on his own, he studied, emulated, and “borrowed shamelessly” from famous illustrators, from German comic artists and English Victorian illustrators to Marc Chagall. He took his cue from his many and eclectic musical, artistic, and literary heroes; Mozart, Blake, Melville, Dickinson, and Shakespeare reign supreme. “Mozart is the most perfect example, except perhaps for Shakespeare, of the constant collision of brilliant color and darkness. You don’t know whether to cry or laugh.”

Although he wrote in silence, occasionally stuffing his ears with earplugs, he drew to the strains of music that empowered him to release his fantasies. What he chose to play colored his pictures. While he professed no musical talent except to whistle on pitch, music – especially opera – remained his first passion.

In 1975, he began his career as a set designer with a commission for an opera version of “Wild Things,” soon followed by an invitation to design the set of “The Magic Flute.” With children’s author Arthur Yorinks, he founded the Night Kitchen Theater, a children’s theater company for which he has produced, designed, and directed. “Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale for Children,” a Judaism-infused version of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” was produced in Manhattan in 2002. He also collaborated with the Pilobolus Dance Company to create a Shoah-based piece, “A Selection,” with music by Krasa and Pavel Haas.

Sendak did not have any children of his own. Whatever direction he took, he never ventured far from the world of childhood: “I am obsessed with childhood,” he said, “and with the extraordinary heroism of children.”

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